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In a revelation that should come as a surprise to absolutely no one, it appears that the lack of iMessage support on Android devices is the result of a deliberate choice by Apple to keep iPhone users locked into the Apple ecosystem.
As part of the case it’s trying to make against Apple’s supposed anticompetitive behaviour, Epic cites email conversations and depositions that it obtained as part of the legal discovery process where Apple executives Eddy Cue, Phil Schiller, and Craig Federighi discussed the idea of bringing iMessage support to Android devices.
The information supplied in Epic’s court filing makes it clear that Apple internally tossed around the idea of iMessage on Android back in 2016, but ultimately rejected the idea because it would cause the company more harm than good.
Interestingly, we heard several rumours of iMessage on Android around the same time, claiming to have heard from “sources familiar with the company’s thinking.” While some dismissed these as idle speculation, it’s now apparent they were prompted by leaks of what discussions were going on within Apple.
According to the information supplied in Epic’s court filing, when an unnamed “former Apple employee” weighed in on the discussions by commenting that “the #1 most difficult [reason] to leave the Apple universe app is iMessage … iMessage amounts to serious lock-in”, Phil Schiller added that “moving iMessage to Android will hurt us more than help us, this email illustrates why.”
According to depositions cited by Epic, Apple had actually considered — and subsequently ruled out — developing iMessage for Android as far back as 2013. Eddy Cue, Apple’s Senior VP of Software and Services, testified that Apple obviously “could have made a version on Android that worked with iOS” so that “users of both platforms would have been able to exchange messages with one another seamlessly.”
However, Craig Federighi, Apple’s Senior VP of Software Engineering, feared that “iMessage on Android would simply serve to remove [an] obstacle to iPhone families giving their kids Android phones.”
Apple’s Lock-in Strategy (According to Epic Games)
Naturally, Epic Games is using this little tidbit to help it make the case that Apple locks users into their ecosystem in any way possible, presumably in the hopes that it will demonstrate that Apple’s approach to the App Store is just as much about locking users in as anything else that the company does.
In the filings, Epic also cites additional examples, including Find My Friends, Continuity, FaceTime, and parental control capabilities as “switching costs” that lock users into the iPhone and prevent them from moving to another mobile device, along with the investment in apps and media purchases.
In one of the dispositions shared by Epic, Cue states that “the more people use our stores the more likely they are to buy additional Apple products and upgrade to the latest versions. Who’s going to buy a Samsung phone if they have apps, movies, etc already purchased. They now need to spend hundreds more to get to where they are today.”
Epic adds that Apple’s Craig Federighi also testified that it would be a “horrible idea” to “make it easier for someone to switch away from our platforms” by “eliminat[ing] all of [Apple’s] differentiation.”
The filing also cites Apple’s “prior adjudicated antitrust violations” in the form of the 2015 e-book price fixing scandal, noting that this has “not deterred it from seeking to lock more and more consumers into its ecosystem,” which it claims “results in higher consumer prices.”
It’s important to keep in mind that even though Epic’s court filing cites depositions and other information from Apple executives, it’s being filed solely for Epic to support its lawsuit against Apple and its alleged App Store monopoly.
It’s a one-sided document to be clear, and there’s no doubt at all that Epic is cherry-picking comments from the depositions, which themselves were a result of Epic’s lawyers interviewing Apple’s executives, and therefore asking loaded questions in the first place.
What’s more at issue is whether Apple is actually doing anything wrong by creating services and apps that work exclusively with its platform. The crux of Epic’s thinking seems to be that Apple has some kind of moral obligation to open up its services to competing platforms, but it’s difficult to see how any business should be reasonably expected to make it easier for customers to switch to their competitors.
This certainly isn’t how things seem to work in the rest of the world of commerce, where consumers frequently pay for accessories, software, and other services for everything from cars and home entertainment systems to computers and game consoles. “Switching costs” are the norm in pretty much any product ecosystem.
Further, Apple has been pretty upfront when it comes to services like iMessage being designed to exclusively benefit its users. Not long after the 2016 rumours began circulating, Walt Mossberg asked “a senior Apple executive” point-blank why iMessage wasn’t being expanded to other platforms.
When I asked a senior Apple executive why iMessage wasn’t being expanded to other platforms, he gave two answers. First, he said, Apple considers its own user base of 1 billion active devices to provide a large enough data set for any possible AI learning the company is working on. And, second, having a superior messaging platform that only worked on Apple devices would help sales of those devices — the company’s classic (and successful) rationale for years.Walt Mossberg
Further, the responses that Apple executives have given in their depositions clearly indicate that Apple thinks its so-called “lock-in strategy” is simply good business, and it’s not really a big secret that Apple has long considered its closed ecosystem to be an advantage in that regard.
To be fair, however, Epic is also trying to use this lock-in to support the point that developers really have no choice but to develop for iOS devices, as users who are locked in are unlikely to switch to other platforms just because they can’t get an app or game for the iPhone.
Since the only way to get apps onto an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch is to publish them on the App Store, then Apple is essentially also locking in developers and forcing them to pay a 30% commission if they want to be able to reach Apple’s captive audience of over a billion iOS users.
Epic also continues to make its argument that game consoles are not in the same category, as they are “single purpose” devices that are not “substitutable for smartphones,” and therefore the contention that gamers are free to play Epic’s titles on other platforms isn’t a sufficient argument for Apple forcing the developer to abide by its terms on the iOS App Store.
In its court filing, Epic also suggests that the only reason developers put up with Apple’s “unfavourable terms and conditions” is that they simply have no choice but to do so because of Apple’s “market power.”